Tag Archives: 1930s

Blue plate specials

blueplateDuring the 1920s and 1930s the blue plate lunch and dinner thrived. The first blue plate special reference I have found is in 1915. A railway running between Bradenton FL and Washington D.C., the Seaboard Air Line Railway, announced that year that they would begin offering a daily special of either meat or fish served on one plate with two vegetables.

The simplicity of the meal, with fewer food items on fewer pieces of china, turned out to be  highly congruent with suggested government cutbacks that arrived with World War I urging restaurants to conserve on all aspects of their operations.

After the war the blue plate special continued to be popular because it was a workable compromise between the needs of a fast-paced urban society and the legions of consumers accustomed to eating a meat-and-potatoes “dinner” at noon. Though resembling a home-style dinner, the blue plate meal was lighter and faster to serve up than its predecessors. Consisting of less food, it required less time for digestion and kept office workers from getting that “siesta” feeling in the afternoon.

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Its billing as “home cooking” communicated that it was not ethnic cuisine as were meals in table d’hote restaurants run by immigrant Americans. Beef and gravy, pork chops, ham, mashed or fried potatoes, carrots, and green beans were typical on blue plates. [June 1, 1930, special at the Merry Eating Luncheonette, Springfield MA]

In previous eras a “regular dinner” or table d’hote restaurant meal would have arrived parceled out on many plates, saucers, and side dishes. Cutting down both on china and dishwashing as well as server time, the blue plate dinner or lunch was usually offered as an economy meal typically costing about 35 to 50 cents, a moderate price in the post-WWI inflationary economy. Blue plate specials were attractive to restaurants because they permitted them to make use of a good buy or get rid of food stocks on the verge of going bad. The tradeoff was that often the diner had little choice regarding the meal’s composition.

blueplatespecialBoston1940Since the meals’ components were cooked prior to lunch and dinner rushes and kept warm on steam tables, they could be served quickly, saving time for patrons and increasing turnover for the establishment. Of course steam tables took their toll. That one-plate specials were not always the finest is suggested by a 1930 guidebook which commends The Alps restaurant in NYC by noting that their blue plate dinners “are more than mere collections of edibles, served en masse.”

One-plate meals continued into the 1940s and after WWII  but the term “blue plate” was beginning to sound old-fashioned and was used mainly in smaller towns. Stodgy one-plate meals became material for humorists. In 1952 columnist Hal Boyle lampooned the blue plate luncheon “engulfed in gravy,” characterizing it as an “all-America culinary nightmare.” “I take it to the hotel I am staying at and use it instead of soap for a shower,” he wrote. “I rub it on my head as a shampoo.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Gossip feeds restaurants

gossip1927gossipHeddaHopper3

O. O. McIntyre, a popular columnist who authored “New York Day by Day,” advised his readers in 1925 that anyone wishing to open a “swank” New York restaurant and establish a smart reputation from the start should get prominent people and theater stars to patronize it. “The rest,” he wrote, “is up to the cafe’s press agent.” He might have added, “and gossip columnists.”

By revealing glimpses into the lives of the rich and famous, gossip columnists like McIntyre, working with restaurants’ press agents, played a crucial role in the publicity system that made New York’s restaurants and nightclubs household names across the nation. The same was true of Hollywood’s night spots, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Columnist Leonard Hall wrote in 1937, “As restaurants, Hollywood’s famed eating houses are little more than golden shambles, which exist that stars may see and be seen.”

gossipBrownDerbybettyHuttonDorothyLamour1949

Columnists might sometimes focus on a restaurant’s food, decor, or proprietor, but their main subjects were clearly its celebrity customers. Who was s/he with? What was she wearing? Romances brewing? Was anyone getting the cold shoulder, a divorce? Were their stars rising or falling? [Above Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton smile wanly for the camera at the Brown Derby]

The main thing, though, was just to get the names before the readers’ eyes. Typically the columns delivered short bursts of mundane info, each bit separated from the next by an ellipsis (. . .). A sample from Lucius Beebe’s “Faces Around Town,” 1938: “Burgess Meredith having early dinner with Frank Shields at Jack and Charlie’s before going to the theater . . . Henry Luce and Claire Luce, ditto, but indicating marital individualism by commanding different entrees – she pompano meuniere, he chateaubriand and German fried potatoes . . .”

Mid-century spots such as the Stork Club, El Morocco, the Colony, and Jack and Charlie’s ‘21′ in NYC; Hollywood’s Brown Derby, Trocadero, and Ciro’s; and Chicago’s Pump Room were a few of the top restaurants and clubs that played the gossip game. Parlaying gossip was standard practice at the glamour palaces, so much so that the elegant and expensive Voisin on Park Avenue, which also refused to advertise, was noted for having NO gossip columnists holding court at its tables.

gossipStorkClubColumnists were influential. Sherman Billingsley, proprietor of the Stork Club, credited Walter Winchell with making his club successful. Winchell, who operated out of the Stork from his own table, enjoyed a privileged position in the gossip business and at the club whose upstairs barber shop was at his disposal. In the 1960s a short blurb by Dorothy Kilgallen put Elaine’s on the map, according to its proprietor, the late Elaine Kaufman.

Restaurants, celebrities, and columnists profited mutually from gossip. In New York the featured subjects were people with power, café society, theater actors, and literary figures; in Hollywood they were film stars needing to propel their careers. Restaurants living up to the boast, “A gossip columnist guaranteed under every table,” were appreciated by show biz figures. Newspapers and fan magazines regularly ran photographs of stars arriving at a posh restaurant or of couples smiling from their tables. When a new restaurant or nightclub opened the owner hired a press agent to round them up. They dropped by, posed with the owner, and circulated, in a constant routine that kept their faces and names before the public and added glitz to the restaurant. El Morocco found the publicity generated by an opening night so valuable that they held one every year.

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Sometimes restaurant owners would even subsidize patrons from film and stage. At Sardi’s, where as late as the 1960s “one well-timed exposure . . . [was] worth more to a burgeoning career than a whole picture series in a fan magazine,” actor Jose Ferrer dined for months on account before attaining success in his role as Cyrano de Bergerac. “Prince” Mike Romanoff, whose own restaurant would one day become a den of celebrity gossip, had enjoyed free meals at Chasen’s in his early days in Hollywood. [Above Ernest Hemingway and his wife Martha]

All the roles were fluid. Hedda Hopper acted before she took up the pen. But perhaps the best role optimization occurred when columnists became celebrities and used their own activities as subject matter. Journalist Christopher Morley wrote about the doings of his lunch clubs while putting the spotlight on NYC restaurants such as Christ Cella’s.

Gossip columnists still operate but their work became less valuable to restaurants and celebrities with the arrival decades ago of newspaper restaurant reviews and television talk shows and, more recently, social media.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Eating Chinese

lynn1937KingJoy

While paging through a 1922 Massachusetts business directory I was struck at first by how many Chinese restaurants there were in various towns. But when I went back to the directory to take a closer look I realized there weren’t really so many except, perhaps, in manufacturing towns such as Fall River and Lowell.

I wondered who patronized Chinese restaurants in Massachusetts in the early 20th century – and then I remembered recently buying a diary that mentioned a place called King Joy.

After I managed to identify the family whose doings were chronicled in the diary (not easy!), I discovered a surprising and intriguing little story.

The diary, mostly written in 1935, was about three generations of a family living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. It was kept by the grandmother of the family who I will call Gertrude, age 76. Her husband Arthur was a retired dentist a few years older. They headed a socially prominent family with two homes, one in the affluent community of Hamilton and the other in the nearby resort town of Nahant.

Living with Arthur and Gertrude were their daughter Opal, age 49, and her son Jamie, age 5. Opal’s brother Perry, a 40-year old engineer, and his wife Ellen, also lived in Hamilton.

hotelvendomeThe overwhelming focus of the diary is the health of family members, who seem to be under the weather for much of 1935. There are large stretches of blank pages where nothing is recorded, but restaurants are mentioned six times, all but one of them Chinese. The exception was the time that Gertrude, Opal, and Jamie went to Boston and stayed overnight in the Hotel Vendome, a Back Bay hotel for the gentry that dated to 1871. While grandmother and grandson retired early, Opal had a late-night supper in the hotel’s Nippon Room. Gertrude, a woman of few words who loved to abbreviate, hints in the diary that the purpose of the trip was for Jamie to visit his estranged father.

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Twice that year Gertrude records that someone, usually Opal and Jamie, went to King Joy in nearby Lynn MA. Another time Opal went to Lynn to bring back chow mein for her father, Arthur, who had fallen down the stairs at home. Once the family went to the Far East Restaurant in Lynn and once they went to the Canton Restaurant in Worcester, riding in Perry’s car.

OWP1904Opal’s liking for what must have been a fairly exotic cuisine to a Massachusetts native in the 1930s might be explained by her world travel as a young woman. In 1904, at age 19 [pictured], she was adopted by a wealthy retired Boston lawyer with real estate holdings. Divorced and thirty years her senior, he was a renowned animal rights advocate, free thinker, and globe-trotter. (Amazingly enough, Opal’s parents reportedly approved of the arrangement.) Shortly after the adoption, Opal and her new father set off for a visit to the World’s Fair in St. Louis followed by a trip to Brazil and winter in Egypt. It was the first of many trips she would take with him.

Opal married around 1921, at age 36, giving birth to Jamie nine years later. Her adopted father gave her his house in the Boston area as a wedding present and some time later moved to Los Angeles.

PGP1934By the time Opal’s paternalistic benefactor died in 1934 at age 77 [pictured], he had crossed the Atlantic 145 times, visited Russia 16 times, Egypt 13 times, and the Arctic 13 times. In his will he left all his money to animal protection and free-thinking societies and just $1 to Opal. She contested the will, probably without success.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Dining sky-side

airportO'Hare

Although a number of superior restaurants have opened in airports in the past several years, their run-of-the-mill food purveyors are often just passable. Customer comments reveal praise for certain restaurants, but opinions overall sound a negative note, rising to weak compliments such as “actually somewhat good” or “standard innocuous restaurant/hotel fare.”

In the beginning, there was no food at all. In the 1920s airports had no restaurant facilities. There were scarcely any commercial flights, facilities consisted mainly of fields and a hangar or two, and the few commercial passengers were lucky if they could get a cup of coffee.

By the mid-1930s more commercial flights were offered and airport conditions improved. The number of passengers multiplied more than 100 times between 1926 and 1935. To win greater traffic, bigger cities vied to create terminal facilities that could match those of their transportation rival, trains. Restaurants figured prominently among the amenities offered.

Most passengers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were businessmen or wealthy travelers who were unwilling to settle for bad food. Even though all air travel was essentially first-class then, passengers frequently rejected what was served on the plane and tried for something better in the terminal. Their demands, combined with the need to put airports in the black financially, brought about efforts to create first-rate airport eating places.

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The earliest image of an airport restaurant I’ve found is that of the Sky Room in Burbank CA’s Union Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport), in 1940, showing tables with white linens, goblets, and boudoir-style table lamps.

Airports were costly for cities and towns to build and run so income from concessions was needed badly. Managers expected income from non-aviation concessions at New York’s Idlewild airport to make up one third of revenues in 1949. Restaurants and coffee shops were the biggest single contributors of concession revenue in most airports.

But restaurants found it hard to operate profitably when serving only “captive customers,” particularly when their numbers were still relatively small. Beyond pleasing airline passengers, the solution for many airports was to reach out to customers living nearby. In 1947 the airport restaurant in Albuquerque NM went so far as to hire a chef who had studied with Escoffier and cooked for US presidents and royal families in Europe. His mission was to make the terminal restaurant one of the nation’s best known restaurants.

The early 1950s saw the debut of what might have been America’s premier airport restaurant, The Newarker in the Newark NJ terminal. With Joe Baum as manager and Albert Stockli as chef, it soon became famous, launching Restaurant Associates which owned many of NYC’s top dining establishments. Duncan Hines lauded The Newarker for its “flaming sword specialties, authentic East Indian curries, [and] regional Swiss specialties.”

airportCleveland1965Seattle1941

Evidently the tactic of pulling in locals worked, partly because even through the 1960s people were thrilled to see planes take off and land. Dining rooms typically overlooked the airfield. In 1953 Fort Worth’s new terminal at Amon Carter Field was touted as “a wonderful, quiet spot to have a leisurely evening meal and then sit on the observation deck and look at the bright lights of booming Dallas nineteen miles away.” Now it may seem an odd idea to go to an airport restaurant to celebrate a birthday or, even stranger, a holiday such as Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, yet these festivities did indeed take place [advertisements: Cleveland, 1965; Seattle, 1941].

airportClevelandshreiberrestaurantSome airport restaurants were operated by local restaurateurs. Among them was Marie Schreiber, who became a restaurant operator for Statler hotels after providing meals in Cleveland’s airport restaurant [pictured] as well as on-board meals for departing United Airlines flights. Food service operations of two Chicago departments stores, Marshall Field and Carson, Pirie & Scott, handled meals at O’Hare for years.

At the same time, chains that ran airport restaurants and prepared meals for service during flights developed rapidly. Some, such as Skychef restaurants, were operated by the airlines (in this case American Airlines), but existing chains such as Dobbs House and railroad caterers Fred Harvey and Interstate Hosts also migrated into airports. Dobbs House units in airports from Wichita to Miami also earned praise from Duncan Hines in 1959 for dishes such as pompano en papillote and Colorado mountain trout.

Southern airports were protest sites because of their discriminatory treatment of Black passengers. Until summer of 1961, Blacks were not served in Interstate Hosts’ main dining room or the coffee shop in New Orleans’ Moisant International airport, but only at the snack bar. After lawsuits, Black customers gained equal patronage at all airport restaurants in recognition that airports, like bus terminal facilities, were fundamental to interstate commerce.

In the 1980s theme restaurants – often flight-themed – began to locate in the vicinity of airports. But that’s a subject for a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Restaurant cups

PosterofTeaCups

While on a short visit to New York City, I stepped inside Fishs Eddy on Broadway at 19th Street to look at their vintage restaurantware. I was struck by this poster used for decoration in the store. It shows a variety of teacup models, probably from the 1920s.

Then thick, almost unbreakable, cups for coffee and tea were commonly used in popular restaurants that served masses of customers. What struck me about the poster was that some cups were named for actual restaurants. I’m guessing that these were restaurants that had requested a particular, possibly custom, design. I immediately noticed the names Child’s, the leading chain of that era; Lorber, an old Philadelphia restaurant that had been at the 1876 Centennial; and Marston, a sturdy Boston standby. On second glance I noticed Hollenden, a hotel in Cleveland.

logcabininnThe other thing that struck me was the number of designs that scarcely differ from each other. Evidently restaurants and hotel dining rooms had very precise ideas about what they wanted in a cup. The differences appear so slight, as with Sharon vs. Colonnade. I wondered, were customers who drank from the Duquesne equipped with especially big fingers?

EliteGrillcupI tried to match up the poster’s teacups with other restaurant cups – and failed. The Elite Grill and the Log Cabin Inn seem to have handles that are ever so slightly different from each other as well as the illustrated cups.

macdougallpotteryThe other bit of historical minutia that sprang to mind was how Alice Foote MacDougall, proprietor of a 1920s NYC chain of coffee/tea shops that emphasized “atmosphere,” hated the serviceable china found in everyday restaurants and soda fountains of her time. In 1928 she wrote it was “so thick that I felt I needed to build an extension on my lips to drink from it.” To protect her restaurant customers from such an unpleasant experience she imported china from Italy. She also sold it retail from showrooms at her places on West 46th and 47th streets, Firenze and The Piazzetta, respectively.

In fiction of the 1920s and 1930s writers employed thick cups as signifiers of cheap restaurants, usually encountered by a downtrodden hero or lady in distress who has fallen from a higher status. In a similar vein, thick cups took on an aura of humble, bedrock authenticity. The columnist O. O. McIntyre captured this attitude during the Depression when he wrote of midnight lunch wagons: “Here the real life versions of Wallace Beery and Jimmy Cagney eat in shirt sleeves with hats on. Coffee is – as it should be – in thick cups.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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“Time to sell the doughnuts”

donutsMayflower796Doughnuts are a food that has rarely been taken seriously by the media. After encountering loads of silly stories about doughnut holes and dunking I have decided the reason is that throughout the last century the doughnut industry was amazingly successful in promoting its products, often through humor. Most of what appeared in papers and magazines was the work of publicity agents for the manufacturers of doughnuts, equipment, and mixes.

No doubt people would enjoy doughnuts even without publicity, but the endless promotional events and stories helped make their consumption year-round rather than concentrated in fall and winter.

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Starting in the 1930s the publicity directors of one of the largest producers, The Doughnut Corporation of America, organized dunking contests, created a National Dunking Association, sponsored displays at World’s Fairs [1939 advertisement shown], and planted photos of celebrities eating doughnuts in newspapers and magazines along with cartoon-illustrated stories such as one about a character named “Ima Dunker.”

One of the corporation’s publicity directors claimed that doughnuts were the first food to have a week proclaimed for it. National Doughnut Week began in the 1930s. To the annoyance of some who felt it was frivolous, mayors of cities and towns around the country would receive a kit with a membership card for the National Dunking Association and a bib along with a request to proclaim doughnut week.

The Doughnut Corporation of America grew out of a small baking business in NYC owned by Adolph Levitt. He is often credited with inventing the first automatic doughnut machine in 1920, but in fact there were numerous machines on the market then as well as in earlier years. Doughnut making machines were popular with bakeries and lunch rooms which placed them in their windows so that people on the street could see the (cake) doughnuts being made and feel drawn to buy some. But Levitt was clever and soon his rapidly growing company was supplying the whole country with machines as well as Downyflake doughnut mix, and backing it all up with publicity support.

donuttimessquaremenu1949In 1931 the Doughnut Corporation created a Mayflower Coffee Shop in Times Square. It was followed by one each in Boston and Chicago the next year, and another in Springfield MA in 1934. By 1936 there were 15 around the country, and in 1949 there were 24. The Mayflower Shops menu featured popular dishes such as Hamburgers, Corned Beef Hash, and fountain specialties, but also Waffles (the company made waffle mix too), Pancakes, and of course Donuts (as they came to be spelled). Plain, sugared, and cinnamon donuts cost 5 cents each in 1949, 10 cents for a frosted donut, and a Donut a la Mode came to 15 cents.

donutdownyflakeADV1932The Doughnut Corporation also franchised Downyflake Shops. In 1931 there were 36 in Boston and surrounding towns in eastern Massachusetts, out of a nationwide total of about 400. They appear to have been sandwich shops for the most part, but some may have only sold doughnuts. The Doughnut Corporation also built doughnut plants around the country. A plant in Fort Worth TX in 1932 produced an important doughnut ingredient, dried egg powder, a product which had for decades come exclusively from China.

I am unsure how long the Doughnut Corporation’s restaurants stayed in business, however by the mid-1970s the company, now DCA Food Industries, still produced doughnut making equipment. By then the doughnut-plus-coffee shop business was led by Dunkin Donuts (750 franchises) and Winchell’s Donut House (530 units).

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Who was the mystery diner?

Jamescover795I am now the happy owner of Rian James’ Dining in New York published in 1930. When I opened it, I discovered a nice surprise: someone had penciled notes next to many of the restaurants described in the book.

This is a big deal to a restaurant historian because it is so hard to find out what consumers thought about restaurants in the past. Today it is easy, but in 1930, for instance, few people recorded their restaurant experiences and opinions in writing, possibly because it seemed trivial.

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As I looked at the comments I wondered who wrote them. Was it the person whose name is inside the cover? And just what is that name? M. Z. Mells? Or, were the notes made by someone other than the book’s owner?

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I puzzled over whether the writer was a man or a woman. There seems to be conflicting “evidence.” I find the handwriting ambiguous. As for content, on the one hand MZM used words such as “delightful” and “yummy,” went to lunch with Mother, Aunt Frances, and Mother’s friend Mrs. Claggett, and enjoyed the Gypsy Tea Shop (“Went here often with Mother – lots of fun”), all suggesting that MZM was female. But, then again, MZM loved the thick lamb chops at Keen’s Chop House, appreciated the Maitre d’ at the Roosevelt Grill, and often went to ice hockey games with Uncle Frank after dining at the Hotel Astor, hinting at maledom.

JamesrooseveltgrillThe surname Mells is uncommon. I found no M. Z. Mells, but did find a few women named Mells in NYC whose first names began with M. The strongest candidate was Mildred Mells. Born in New York City around 1910, in 1930 she worked as a model for a dress manufacturer and lived with her widowed mother and an older sister who was a supervisor for the telephone company. Her age meshed with the book’s publication and with the comment next to Enrico and Paglieri’s: “went there from childhood till 1945.”

JamesDivanParisienMZM added glowing comments, not only about the Roosevelt Grill (above), but also Keen’s (“Loved this place!”), The Lafayette and The Brevoort (both “old N.Y.C. landmarks”), Cavanagh’s (“A favorite place!”), Divan Parisien (“So good!”), and Charles French restaurant (“Excellent food and service”). In MZM’s minus column were The Wivel (“I liked other Swedish restaurants better.”), Luchow’s (“This was a very famous place but I didn’t care much for it or its food.”), and the Brass Rail, which merited the only comment written in the present tense (“don’t like this place”).

The writer couldn’t remember if s/he ever went to the Village Barn or Billy the Oysterman. S/he had eaten at Sardi’s, Zucca’s, Barney Gallant’s, The Commodore Grill, and Feltman’s on Coney Island but had no comments on them. And MZM regretted never making it to The Marguery or The Claremont Inn on Riverside Drive and 126th Street (“Went by this place hundreds of times but never got there. It looked so inviting.”)

I wonder why MZM passed by the Claremont Inn so often. Is that a clue? Now you know almost as much as I do. Any ideas about this little mystery?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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